Common Myths About Engineers

common myths about engineers
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As a regular reader of Chemical Engineering Progress (CEP), I was impressed to see its Editor-in-Chief Cindy Mascone writing her monthly editorial as a poem. She mentioned that when she writes for the magazine “accuracy, clarity, and conciseness take precedence over all else.” But that doesn’t mean she can’t be creative too! Her poem got me thinking about common myths about engineers.

  1. We aren’t creative
  2. We lack social skills
  3. We want to fix everything (whether it needs it or not)
  4. We’re quantitative wonks
  5. We are boring (just in case that wasn’t clear from being a quantitative wonk)
  6. We’re not open to new areas of inquiry or interest

Get to know an engineer!

Of course, I beg to differ. I like to think of this blog as one outlet for creativity. Plus, every time we come up with a new solution or problem-solve in a new way, we’re showing not only critical, but also creative thinking.

I’ve written a lot about troubleshooting in filtration technology, but not because we do it for kicks. We do it to improve a process or solve a problem. Really, we’d rather be innovating — which, again, is just how non-boring and creative we can be.

We may know our numbers, and some of us can be a little socially awkward (but plenty of liberal arts enthusiasts are too). Still, I’d argue that we are generally creative, inquisitive, and downright interesting folks!

And now, because I know you’re curious, I can also share the poem itself:

Ode to the March 2019 Issue of CEP

This month we feature process intensification

One aspect of which may be flow augmentation

Equipment that is smaller or does more than one function

To the old paradigm, PI causes disruption.

The first article tells of three RAPID teams

Whose projects are the stuff of dreams

Microwaves, solar hydrogen, and hydrofracking

Energy-saving ideas, they are not lacking.

A dividing-wall column replaces two towers with one

It changes the way distillation is done

With a smaller footprint and lower capital cost

And on top of that, no efficiency’s lost.

So how do you optimize an intensified route?

That’s what the next article is about

Use this building block approach to process design

And watch your energy use decline.

A digital twin software tools can create

To capture the process’s every possible state

You can study alternatives and run what-if tests

To figure out which option is best.

This issue contains many other things, too

Whatever your interests, there’s something for you

The same can be said of the Spring Meeting which will

Take place in New Orleans and be quite a thrill

Check out the preview after page seventy-four

For sessions and keynotes and events galore.

I’ve run out of space so now I must stop

But if you like this poem, to the website please hop

There’s more rhyming about CEP and its staff

I hope I have made you smile and laugh.

Thank you for coming to read more of my poem

On the website or app that is our virtual home.

The authors who write for this fine magazine

Do it not for the money but to get their names seen

By thousands of people at sites far and wide

For this publication is a valuable guide.

The topics they cover in their technical articles

Range from safety and computers to fluids and particles

From water and energy, from bio to dust

From nano to columns that are resistant to rust

From instrumentation to exchangers of heat

Among chemical magazines, CEP can’t be beat.

Our readers know not what we editors do

To make the articles understandable for you

Each page is read over many times with great care

To ensure that no typos can be found anywhere

That tables and figures are in the right places

That all the text fits with no empty spaces

That references include all the necessary data

That symbol font correctly displays mu, rho, and beta

That hyphens appear everywhere hyphens are needed

That the proofreader’s comments have been fully heeded.

We take pride in our work and we love what we do

Bringing the latest technology and information to you

But now we must turn to next month’s content

And make sure every moment on the job is well spent.

Reprinted with permission from Chemical Engineering Progress (CEP), March 2019. Copyright © 2019 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)

Inspired to write your own technical poetry? Engineering verse? I’d love to see it and share it here! Who knows, maybe there is an anthology in the works!

 

Agile Project Teams in Engineering

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Engineering these days requires agility. We’re reconfiguring processes, and we need to be flexible with time zones, languages, accents, engineering cultures and operating philosophies. We cannot always select the people on our projects and must work with various teams to be successful.  How do we do this? McKinsey & Company insights into Agile Project Teams provides some interesting insights.

Let’s apply their practical observations from How to Select and Develop Individuals for Successful Agile Teams: A Practical Guide to process engineering.

First, when approaching a new process problem, it’s important for everyone to understand handling ambiguity with agreeableness leads to success. This includes the engineering and operating company teams and technology suppliers.

Processes are complex; there are many choices for the design. I have one project at the moment where the solvents/solids are toxic and hazardous, the solids polymerize immediately, and the operating conditions are severe.  There are over fifteen (15) different options for the solid-liquid separation technology design.  McKinsey’s research would suggest our project team needs to work through each option while keeping the focus on a safe and acceptable solution.

The guide suggests, Agreeableness means saying “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but.” It’s not about avoiding conflict or blindly agreeing without any thinking. It’s about testing ideas while being open to feedback.

Agility in Engineering Projects

Per McKinsey’s analysis, the agile project team’s focus must be on outcomes. “Agile teams take ownership of the product they deliver. For them, pride in the product (the outcome) sits higher than pride in the work (the process): they know that the process can and will change as they review the relationship between the process and value it achieves.”

Each step in the process moves the team closer to the desired outcome to achieve the overall objective: optimum technology selection to achieve quality while meeting environmental and safety requirements.

Finally, everyone must work as a team on successful agile projects. Sometimes different agendas must be reconciled.  Neuroticism can be an obstacle: “team members need to be able to stay calm when unexpected errors and issues arise.”

Find ways to foster a cooperative spirit. Years ago, I worked on a project where the operating company implemented a program rewarding team members that came up with ideas or creative solutions and showed cost savings. In fact, our vendor team was rewarded for including a special type of dust filter to capture solids from the vacuum dryer. As you can imagine, it’s not often the operating company provides additional compensation to the vendor!

The McKinsey study concludes, “great teams do not mean technically the best people or the most experienced.” Agility serving a shared focus on the goal can make the team even better. Next time, you’re on a project, keep these points in mind. Let me know if you are successful!

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Goodbye 2019, Hello 2020!

man with fireworks
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A new year is a great time for a shift in direction. This blog tries to be different each time. I cover topics ranging from innovation to technical leadership. I’m always looking for fresh ways of doing things in our industry, in process engineering and business development. And I look for new ways to convey these ideas to the marketplace. 

In 2019, I talked about clarification technologies, types of engineers, innovation risk, and the creativity of the octopus. In 2020, look for blogs on orangutans, moonshots, and agile methodology and engineering. But for right now, as we look forward to celebrating a new year, here are some ideas to help you try a new highway in 2020. 

We have a chance for the next decade to be a new roaring ‘20s. Don’t get stuck taking the same routes you’ve always been traveling. Try these approaches for a novel approach to 2020 and beyond:

  • Adopt a positive mindset and see the opportunities

Its easy to get bogged down when a process is not working or a project is going sideways. Learn to accept – everything from setbacks through to challenges. Turn these diversions from your plan or expectations into opportunities.  

  • Be brave and stick to your guns

Maybe you are the innovator with a new idea of how things should be done. If you are sure about the design or process change, then go ahead and make the change.  Remember, to test first and to have all of your facts in place to show technical leadership.

  • Make room for your own creative projects

No matter your work focus, set aside time for your own projects.  Take one hour each morning (for me after yoga) and before you check your e-mails for your personal projects; this will pay off greatly in the long term, on many levels.

  • Don’t let the pressure or threat of failure or competition hold you back 

Be confident in your work and don’t be afraid to try something different. We always learn from our mistakes, and from getting out there and gathering more information. With greater knowledge comes greater confidence.

  • Be authentic and believe in yourself

Use more of your judgement and less of other’s opinions. As I have written in the past,    learning never ends. And if you try to be what other people want of you, instead of being authentic, it can have negative impacts both on your professional life and personal well-being.

  • Don’t ignore your gut but tread carefully

Decision making is never easy. Read more about troubleshooting and how to make better decisions in my 2017 blog.

  • Accept that personal progress can take time but perseverance counts

Any goal takes time.  As loyal readers already know, I sometimes mention my yoga practice, which includes headstands, shoulder stands, tripod stands, etc. These did not happen overnight. But by persevering and keeping an eye on small moments of personal progress along the way, I was able to stick with it and see greater success long-term.

Let’s get ready for 2020. I’ll continue working on this blog and providing new BHS and AVA technical and innovative insights on, Perlmutter & Idea Development.  As you start anew in this fresh decade, I hope you’ll keep reading my blog and my LinkedIn posts. And don’t hesitate to let me know your ideas about technical leadership and other areas of interest for this blog!

P&IDs and Process Evolution

P&IDs and Process

P&IDs are par for the course in process engineering. Recently, I was poring over P&IDs and process planning for several projects. Each project was multinational, multicultural, and extremely complex. For one specialty chemical filtration application, part of a plant expansion in the southern United States, the engineering company is in the Southeast while the existing processes were from the Netherlands and Austria. In another project, with a similar scope, the plant expansion and the engineering company were both in the Northeast U.S., yet the current processes operate all throughout the UK.

As you can imagine, the piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) had many changes, each shown in a different color —the Christmas Trees of P&IDs.  There were extensive e-mail threads of comments and questions and, of course, questions/comments about the comments/questions. Plus, the projects required equally fun conference / video calls accounting for time zone differences, various languages and accents, and varied engineering cultures and operating philosophies. You’ve been in this situation too, I’ll bet.

The discussion, though, is invigorating. The idea exchange goes well beyond solid-liquid separation to encompass types of valves, types of pumps, where to put the pumps, how to handle the solids, operator safety, disposal, and on and on and on.  I even had a question about desalination and how to operate the DAF (Dissolved Air Flotation) units (that’s a topic for another blog).

Developing A New Process Path with P & IDs

After one of these calls, I had an “A-Ha” moment about the true value of our plentiful rounds with P&IDs and process. This is where the innovation happens. The P&IDs are idea development in action. This is where we, as I wrote in one of my earlier blogs, clear our path of unknowns.  

Anyone who’s read my blog consistently will recognize this is what is excites me about process engineering and all we do in this role. I’ve decided to take my own early 2019 advice and stretch myself in new directions with the birth of “P&ID-Perlmutter Idea Development” which you can find at perlmutter-ideadevelopment.com.

To me, these two sites work together like a candle filter functions better with the right filter sock. I’m excited to see how this idea develops, and eager to see what my readers, colleagues, and fellow bloggers will want to add and change and discuss (after all, it’s a P&IDs and process we’re talking about here).

What Type of Engineer Are You?

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There are may different types of engineer. Recently, I read some interesting articles about defining engineers by their skills and depth of knowledge. This blog asks you to consider, what’s your skill shape: I…T…or Key?  

In the 1970’s, companies wanted staff with an I-shaped skill level. What does this mean? I-Shaped Skills reflected a person with a deep (vertical) expertise in one area and practically no experience or knowledge in other areas. This person would typically be known as a specialist. It could be one process, one type of distillation, one type of pump, etc. I remember the days when my customer, Eastman Chemical, had flange specialists, o-ring specialists, vacuum pump specialists. The other large chemical companies, such as Dow Chemical, had similarly focused engineers.

In the 1980s, McKinsey & Company developed the idea of the T-shaped professional. The vertical bar on the T represents strong knowledge in a specific discipline. The horizontal bar represents a wide yet shallow knowledge in other areas. This allows the person to collaborate across other disciplines and acquire new skills or knowledge. Chemical companies have T-shaped engineers such as filtration experts, drying experts, solids handling experts, etc. These engineers can support all types of applications across all of the operations at various sites.  

One classic T was Thomas Edison, who wanted the people around him to know a lot of different things. All his prospective employees had to take a test of 150 questions geared toward different jobs and classifications of workers.

Today, the visualization of skills concept has expanded to include the elusive key-shaped professional—a person who has several areas of expertise with varying degrees of depth. The introduction of the key-shaped professional is largely due to the rapid proliferation of technological advances and the cross-disciplinary nature of work. Across industries and professions, the ability to use technology to assimilate and apply information has created a new, broader expectation of the standard skills professionals should have.

As a result, we’re seeing new parallels between skills sought in business and process engineering.  The top skills include embracing new technology, understanding data, and thinking critically about that data. 

Becoming a Key-Shaped Engineer

types of engineers
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So, how do you become a Key-shaped professional? I have made several suggestions in other blogs:

So, now you may ask, how do I describe myself? Early in my career, I was T-shaped with knowledge about solid-liquid separation. As I progressed, I became more of a Key shape with knowledge about varied topics such as centrifugation, drying, solids handling, mixing and other process operations as well as technical business marketing and startups. 

I encourage you to think about your own skills shape. It might prompt a learning opportunity, and I’d be happy to help where I can with your transformations.

Lessons Learned from Nathan’s

“You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy.”

Business Innovation
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Growing up in Brooklyn, I could bicycle about 5 miles to the ocean and Coney Island. I would always stop at Nathan’s Famous. The stop was always for a hot dog, some fries, a Coke, and then a day on the beach. For those who do not know, Nathan’s has sold more than 500 million (all-beef) hot dogs since its inception; it’s brand of hotdogs are now available at more than 53,000 outlets in all 50 states and 10 foreign countries.

I may not be one of the celebrity loyalists — those included performers such as Cary Grant, Barbara Streisand, gangsters Al Capone, Scarface, Bugsy Siegel, and politicians Bernie Sanders, President Donald Trump… But how does this memory relate to a business innovation blog?

Lessons Learned from Nathan’s

Nathan Handwerker, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant arrived at Ellis Island speaking not a word of English, unable to read or write, and with twenty-five dollars hidden in his shoes. He had a simple goal: work hard, remain fiercely loyal to what matters most, customers and employees, and stay focused on what you know best. Nathan’s began in 1916 and recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. The Coney Island location is now home, of course, to the 4th of July hot-dog eating contest.

Whether or not you’re dealing with hotdogs, though, we can all learn from Nathan’s. First, stay loyal. This cuts across all aspects of work and family. BHS is over 400 years old, so we have been around a long time. But staying loyal to your business, process, technology or whatever you are engaged with is critical to success.

Nathan’s always focused on “quality food at a fair price” to “bring the customers back.” Nathan personally checked every hot dog that came into the restaurant as well as oil temperature for the fries and grill temperature. As a technology supplier, quality at a fair price is what we do. On the operations side, providing quality chemicals, pharmaceuticals, etc., is the key to survival.

Initially Nathan’s sold hot dogs for 10 cents, the same price as the popular Coney Island outpost Feltman’s beer garden. Then, the enterprising young entrepreneur, after netting a mere $60 in his first days of business, decided to lower his prices to 5 cents. With higher volume his next week’s receipts totaled $260. This was the first fast-food price war and one of the brand’s first innovations.

Nathan’s also introduced the food industry to purifying the cooking oil, refrigeration and cleanliness as well as “chow mein on a bun” and beer after prohibition.

Loyalty, quality, business innovation…seems that I learned a lot from those “old” Brooklyn days. Let me know how your younger days influenced your career. I’m sure we will hear some interesting stories.

Relentless Ambition to Improve and Undersea Turbines

Ambition to improve is not just limited to corporate labs or academia. We also see this at work in a time-honored place — the garage. I encountered a story recently of innovation in manufacturing tested and perfected in the garage but conceived in an even more unlikely place: prison .

When Bloomberg featured Herbert Williams in its Energy section, the title of the article was “The Ex-Con Inventor Disrupting Underwater Energy.” In fact, Williams developed his plans for one of the first commercial-scale turbines meant to convert tidal energy to electricity while serving time in prison.

“Prison set me down, allowing me to stop and think,” Williams said in the Bloomberg piece.

innovation in manufacturing
Image source: Bloomberg

Where Innovation Comes From

We all strive for some quiet time to think and develop ideas, strategies, etc. My favorite time is in the sauna after exercising or doing a head-stand in my “hot yoga” class. Williams made some mistakes, but he did his time and while in prison turned to his passion for the love of boats and the sea. He learned technical drawing from a fellow inmate and started coming up with ideas: “I had to make these things to keep a sense of purpose,” he said. “Maybe I made them to show I exist.”

His sense of purpose saw Herbert combining his love of boats and tinkering in a windowless garage to overcome a tough engineering challenge… building a turbine to withstand salt water, and microorganisms as well as to handle the stress of water, 800 times more dense than air.

His innovative solutions included bolting the rotor blades to the rim of the turbine, just like spokes on a bicycle wheel. While this sounds simple, Willams (collaborating with other engineers along the way) also realized that by adding magnets and hand-wound conducive coils he could avoid the need for lubrication. To test that his design wouldn’t seize in cold ocean water, he even tested his idea out in an old aboveground swimming pool loaded with ice.

Engineering Misfits

Patents for his design sold to the Irish company OpenHydro and today massive 300-ton, 52-foot-high versions of the Williams design are deployed in Canada’s Bay of Fundy as well as in Brittany, France. He has joined the Misfits I wrote about a few months ago, those on the outside who make a real difference.

As Herbert says, “if all of the entrepreneurs and tinkerers in the country left it to GE and Westinghouse, we’d be in big trouble.”

Innovation is everywhere. This is just one example of innovation in manufacturing. Let me know what you are working on and when you have time to think.

Importance of Good Professional Sense

Chemical Process Industry engineers don’t encounter ethical situations every day, fortunately. Yet, when we do, the decision-making is heavily weighted by our awareness of the importance of the potential safety, environmental and quality-control hazards associated with what we do.

chemical process industryPhoto credit: CameliaTWU via Decorators Guru / CC BY-NC-ND

Chemical Engineering tackled the topic of Engineering Ethics IQ in a special discussion last year. They also sought the opinions and comments of readers regarding specific hypothetical cases in a survey aiming at discussing ethically charged situations.

The survey:

  • Questioned the ethics of using a miniscule amount of a poisonous additive to a product.
  • Considered whether or not to continue testing with a critical gasket potentially leaking.
  • Addressed proper reporting and handling of waste.
  • Covered insider information and vendor incentives.
  • Examined acknowledging responsibility.

I’ll be interested to see the magazine’s survey results. In the meantime, I was inspired to look back at the NSPE Code of Ethics that notes, “Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.” The AIChE, too, strives to uphold and advance ethical thinking, reminding its members to use “their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare.”

My thinking on this important topic was jogged on the golf course, as I mentioned previously, when I was thinking of the honesty of Brian Davis on the PGA Tour. Revisiting the coverage of that event for this blog, I came across an insightful New York Times opinion piece pointing out that Davis’s behavior highlighted “the refreshing contrast between golf and other sports.”

The columnist observed, “In other sports, players unabashedly claim to have (take your pick) made the catch, avoided the tag, cleanly blocked the shot, had both feet inbounds, etc., only to be overruled by officials or replay cameras.” Whereas, in 1925 golfer Bobby Jones shrugged off praise of his calling a similar penalty on himself by saying, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

This is how we, as chemical process engineers, ought to think as well. That ethical action is not a choice, but the only way to respond. Pressures at work — be they related to time, profitability, or reputation — cannot diminish the fact that ethical decision-making is always good professional sense.

Ethical Engineers are Prepared

On the golf course recently, I was reminded of Brian Davis. Do you remember? In 2010, he called a two-stroke penalty on himself in tournament play. His violation, nudging a reed aside on the 18th, cost him $411,000 as he ultimately finished second to Jim Furyk.

process engineer problem solving
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Now, I haven’t come close to winning a major tournament — although I did earn “closest to the hole” in a Gas Processors Tournament in Madrid, Spain. Nevertheless, when I hit the links I assiduously keep track of my strokes — all of them — because it’s the right thing to do. Somehow this got me thinking of how doing the right thing in chemical process engineering can, in fact, prove as costly as Davis’s honorable action. Yet choosing the other, less-ethical path could cost human lives from say bacterial contamination or ignored safety procedures.

Karl Stephan, writing in Chemical Engineering, acknowledged sound ethics in our field demands “a large dose of technical know-how” as well as a sound ethical foundation when confronting “ethically charged questions.”

Texas State University’s Stephan may have been a Boy Scout as his suggestion for engineers is to “be prepared” to identify ethical problems with seven steps to better navigate the situation. I paraphrase here:

  1. Know what you believe. Ask yourself in advance what kind of situations you would be willing to risk your chemical process engineer reputation or your job for.
  2. Recognize ethical problems. Take stock of your individual role and what could go wrong, go unreported, or cause harm to better understand the scope of your responsibility.
  3. Identify stakeholders. Having identified possible ethical problems, consider everyone who might be affected (whether if something is done or if a problem is ignored).
  4. Analyze interests. Take the time to anticipate each of those stakeholders interest in the various outcomes of an ethical decision.
  5. Examine alternatives. Weigh the possibilities such as doing nothing, doing nothing at least for a time, or acting immediately to determine reasonable courses of action.
  6. Execute decision. With all the thinking you’ve been doing, you should be in a position to implement a decision – even a difficult one.
  7. Document everything. Try and collect a paper trail of the entire process as soon as you are aware of an ethical issue. You will be better able to recall details if called upon if you have the complete, accurate information.

What I appreciate about Stephan’s approach is that he takes the abstraction of ethics and turns it into a process. That’s what I call knowing your audience. Ethics is anathema to engineers in a way. Not because we want to do whatever we want, without caring a whit for the consequences, but because it is not a hard science. Many of us enjoy the one right answer that engineering often represents, whereas ethics is all about ambiguity.

Ultimately, though, there can be no ambiguity in handling ethical situations in chemical process engineering. We must implement clear rules about what is ethical and actively seek to do the right thing — as Davis did. This is the only foundation upon which I will stand for generating revenue and building my and my company’s reputations.

Your next idea could come from a Whopper.

Any process engineer with a love for creativity will appreciate this Business Week article about The DNA of Strawberries.

The article features Phil Stewart, a fruit breeder for Driscoll’s (“the largest player in the $5.6 billion U.S. berry market,” according to Business Week). Stewart spent about two years regularly visiting a wild strawberry plant near a Burger King in Wastonville, California. When the vigorous plant finally bore fruit, Stewart was able to taste the deliciousness of its small berries.

process engineer
Photo credit: zuiko12 / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

What he noticed in this sidewalk strawberry plant was a strong will to survive. It was not being carefully tended with water and chemicals to insure optimum growth. And Stewart, in the kind of open-minded thinking that makes me happy, decided to pluck one of the berries and transport it five miles down the road to where he runs Driscoll’s strawberry breeding program trying to create the next, best strawberry.

In Driscoll’s test fields rows of raised beds are observed, and berry plants are recorded, tested and bred with close attention to qualities such as flavor, size, color, and firmness. Two seedlings grown from the original plant were crossed with other types of strawberry, but the taste was marred by extreme seediness and Stewart dropped the strain after two generations.

That’s not the happy ending you were looking for, right? But whether or not he found the best berry at a Burger King isn’t the important part here. What I admire is Stewart’s willingness to look everywhere (even among the Whopper wrappers) for new answers to the breeding problems he encounters every day. He has so many options to consider in berry genetics, he told BusinessWeek, “I tend to have to be careful not to be distracted by all the cool stuff.”

But isn’t that the lot of creative minds and the likes of us process engineers? There are many cool pathways we can consider in deciding the optimum approach. We don’t want to wallow in rabbit holes, but if we aren’t willing to venture in new directions progress can’t be made.

If you have a process engineering problem for me to tackle, let me know. Like Sherlock Holmes, I’m always ready for a new case and ready to process engineer answers!